Old Man is leaning his huge head into our blue off-road vehicle, gently nuzzling Odessa Oldham’s hand by the steering wheel. I am barely breathing in the passenger seat, not wanting to scare off him and his beautiful, dark, droopy eyes.
We’re stopped in the middle of Oldham’s family ranch, the 900-acre Wind River Wild Horse Sanctuary in Lander, Wyo. The sky above us is as blue as it gets in the West with a couple of feather-like clouds skating across it. Between 10 and 60 feet from our vehicle graze dozens of wild horses, many eyeing us with a bit of uncertainty. But not Old Man. He’s one of the sanctuary’s oldest horses, and he’s comfortable with 27-year-old Oldham and her tour vehicle.
I slowly lift my phone to capture a photo of the all-black horse. Click. He leans in closer, placing his enormous head near Oldham’s as if posing, spurring her to throw her head back and laugh. I start laughing, too, and I realize the possibility of experiencing a moment like this is exactly what brought me to the sanctuary on this warm August day.
In an era where between 200 and 2,000 animal extinctions occur each year according to conservative World Wildlife Fund estimates, wild horses are bucking a downward trend, thriving in large numbers. But as their population expands, they are wreaking havoc on the fragile ecosystems in which they roam in states like Wyoming, Nevada and California. An estimated 88,000 lived on Bureau of Land Management land in 10 western states in 2019. When the wild horse population exceeds what the land can support, the staff round up excess horses like Old Man. Many are adopted by people. Those that are not adopted live out their lives on private contracted ranches or public ones like the Oldhams'.
“But the problem is the number of horses that need to be removed exceeds the demand for horses cared for through adoptions,” says Paul McGuire, an outreach specialist for the BLM’s National Wild Horse & Burro Program. “And that means we need to find humane ways to care for them off the range.”
And that’s not cheap. A staggering $50 million of the program’s budget goes to taking care of off-range wild horses and burros every year. The remaining $31 million is used to manage those still on the range. The good news is the number of people adopting wild horses is increasing from 3,100 in 2016 to 7,104 in 2019. That’s more than a 100 percent increase. The bad news is that it’s just a drop in the bucket.
Bureau of Land Management arrangements with families like the Oldhams help ease the pressure. The Wind River Wild Horse Sanctuary is home to 230 wild horses who live on irrigated pastures that roll across the green valley floor like a square in a quilt. It’s part of a patchwork of 2.2 million acres of private and public land, all sewn together as part of the Wind River Indian Reservation. It’s also the nation’s only wild horse sanctuary on a Native American reservation. If you sign up for a tour, you can get up-close to these beautiful animals via a horse-driven, open-air wagon or a motor-powered side-by-side, depending on your tour group size.
Native American Ties to Horses
While the Wind River Indian Reservation was created for Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes, the Oldham family belongs to neither. Their roots are equally anchored in Navajo and Anglo-American traditions. Odessa Oldham’s dad, Dwayne Oldham, has deep-rooted connections to this corner of Wyoming three hours east of Yellowstone National Park. His family settled here after the Civil War in the 1860s. His wife Denise Oldham is Navajo, having grown up on the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico. Fourteen years ago, the two, along with their four children, moved from the Navajo Reservation to Lander. They run the 900-acre working cattle ranch called the Double D Ranch.
In 2016, they opened the Wind River Wild Horse Sanctuary. It’s one of two Bureau of Land Management-affiliated sanctuaries in Wyoming that are open to the public. In their bright renovated visitor center, you can discover the important role horses have played in Native American life. In fact, it’s one of the few places where you can read exhibit panels on the ways horses changed Native American culture, says Odessa Oldham.
“No one has ever told the Native perspective and that really surprised me,” she says, explaining that she traveled to the Smithsonian (National Museum of the Native American Indian) in Washington, D.C. five years ago to do research for the sanctuary’s visitor center. “There’s a little about regalia, but they don’t have any information on how horses changed Native American life.”
Pest or Symbol of the West?
But it’s not until I am out with Odessa Oldham on what is called a “side-by-side”, a motorized vehicle that resembles a golf cart on steroids, that an overpowering thought washes over me. Horses are still so important to the Oldhams’ lives and others like them. And they are so irrelevant to most of us. It’s almost as if they only live in our imaginations, brought to life in children’s books, grocery stores that have coin-operated mechanical horses and the well-publicized Kentucky Derby.
“We use our (non-wild) horses on a daily basis,” says Oldham, as she navigates through the pasture, hopping out to open a gate. “We prefer to go on horseback for hunting — we’ll ride 10-16 miles into the mountains. We move cows on horseback. And we ride for fun. People say the horse built the West. To be honest, I think the horse built America.”
There’s certainly an argument for this. While horses are as synonymous with the West as sagebrush, horses didn’t exist here until the Spanish explorers and missionaries brought them across the Atlantic Ocean. Sure, there were ancient horses that roamed North America, but they went extinct, along with the woolly mammoths, after the last Ice Age.
There’s no way Spanish explorers and missionaries nor French trappers nor Native Americans could have covered so much ground without horses. Later, horses helped farmers plow fields, haul heavy loads and pull carriages. Over time, captive horses got loose from tribes, ranches and homesteads. Or they were deliberately freed during hard times like the Depression and Dust Bowl, when owners could no longer care for them. They became “wild” horses.
Until the early 1970s, thousands of wild horses in the U.S. were rounded up and killed to be used as pet food or sold as meat in European markets. Ranchers, hunters and others killed them as nuisance animals competing with livestock for water and food. Shocked by the cruel, unregulated treatment of wild horses, a woman named Velma B. Johnston, known as “Wild Horse Annie,” led what some have dubbed the “Pencil War,” in which thousands of school children and adults wrote to Congress, asking for protection of wild horses.
"People say the horse built the West. To be honest, I think the horse built America.”
That protection came in the form of the Wild-Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act passed by Congress in 1971. It recognized that “wild horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.” And it made it a federal crime to indiscriminately harass, capture or kill wild horses or burros on public lands.
Home off the Range
When Richard Nixon signed the bill into law, about 25,000 wild horses and burros lived on public lands. But things got a little tricky after that. Unchecked herds double in size every four years, according to BLM statistics. And that presented a problem for BLM staff who were also charged with protecting the fragile, often water-scarce desert ecosystems in which the horses lived. To protect ecosystems and horses, BLM gathers and removes horses from the land and is investigating increased use of fertility control on the range.
At Wind River Wild Horse Sanctuary, the 230 horses that were removed from the range must feel like they hit the equine jackpot. Their pasture is as verdant as it gets in the West. And while many assume wild horses cannot be tamed, those who have worked with wild horses know differently. Oldham points to Billy the Kid who can be a bit devious, Troublemaker who’s protective of her, Spirit who is beautiful and then Old Man.
“He has a lot of scars from when he was a stallion in the wild,” Oldham says looking at him fondly. “He came to us as an 'unsafe' horse and he is now one of the sweetest.”
Learn more at WindRiverWildHorses.com and reserve your spot on a tour by calling 307-438-3838.